January 29, 2008

Rookies carry men's tennis

After opening their spring season with a 6–1 spanking from Northwestern, Chicago would have been justified to head into their next D-I match with trepidation.

Yet despite dropping three of Saturday’s first five matches at Bally Total Fitness, tough doubles play and strong contributions from a pack of rookies in the lower singles rankings pulled the Maroons (1–1) to a 6–3 victory over Chicago State (0–1).

“I thought it was a good start,” head coach Marty Perry said. “We played hard, we were aggressive in doubles, we had a really close match at number one doubles…it was just good to get our first win.”

Dropping a heated match in the top doubles slot, second-year transfer Lado Bakhutashvili and second-year Steve Saltarelli got the wrong end of several key points as their opponents got away with a 9–7 win.

Tying things up, second-year Garrett Brinker and first-year Joe Tchan cruised past the Cougars in an easy 8–3 win.

In their first collegiate doubles match, rookies Will Zhang and Stanley Do scored a narrow tiebreaker win at the third slot, giving Chicago the edge heading into singles play. Paired for the first time, the duo’s chemistry seemed to work, and the match was the first organized contest for Do since an injury last spring, making the 9–8 victory that much more impressive.

“We had two freshman that had never played doubles before, and they jumped out to a fairly commanding lead and won the tiebreaker,” Perry said. “They battled hard, they were very aggressive, and I think it does well for their confidence to get that early doubles win, because doubles will be fairly important to us this year.”

Moving up to number-one singles, Bakhutashvili had a rough night, falling 6–1, 6–3 in a loss that was uncharacteristic of the much-hyped addition to Chicago’s lineup.

“He didn’t play well,” Perry said. “I’ll be the first to tell you that Lado is a lot better than that. But he fought off 10 match points, which tells you he played very well at the end with his back against the wall. I told him both he and I expect a lot more out of him and I think we’ll get it. It took him a while to get into it and unfortunately I think it took too long.”

Next up, Brinker started off at the second spot with a promising 6–3 victory in the first set, but couldn’t outlast Jonathan Sutjaidi, who bounced back to win in 6–4, 6–2 straight sets.

Grabbing Chicago’s first singles victory, Zhang, the Maroons’ only undefeated player this season, tied the match in a 6–4, 6–4 triumph before first-year Tim Walsh won commandingly (6–2, 6–1).

Clinching the win for the South Siders, second-year Steve Saltarelli came out on the better side of an early tiebreaker to take the first set 7–6, then sealed the deal 6–3.

Although the win was already secure, first-year Stanley Do had one of the night’s more memorable matches as he came back from a shaky 3–6 start to post a 6–3 set and then win the 10-game tiebreaker, played in lieu of the third set.

“Do had an injury and hasn’t played since last spring,” Perry said. “He hasn’t had a lot of match play. He was a little rusty in the first set, and then came out and impressed everyone that was there in the second set. He’s very athletic, very quick, and has a huge forehand. Do just raised his game and took over the match in the second set.”

Emerging from their early-season D-I trial by fire with a 1–1 record, Chicago has also been able to work with lineups, start first-years, and settle on a formula that will likely stay in place as the squad heads into a stretch of more familiar D-III play. With first-years coming up big early, hopefully, the rookies have shown they have the nerves to adjust to a college level and thrive in that environment.

The strong freshmen play bodes well for the Maroons, who play Hope (0–0) at home Saturday before heading into a tough four-match road stretch.